By Seamus Raftery: While I was watching a short documentary recently on the career of heavyweight great Smokin’ Joe Frazier a comment by boxing journalist Thomas Hauser jumped out at me. Speaking of the famous third bout in the series between Frazier and his arch nemesis Muhammad Ali, Hauser suggested that while both men were slightly past their primes, on that day in Manila “their downward curves intersected at just the right point”. The result was one of the most celebrated fights in boxing history.
At a time when the boxing media and fans of the sport are fixated on the long awaited clash between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather I couldn’t help but think about the parallel.
While the majority of the boxing public are overjoyed by the recent announcement there are a few who feel these modern greats have left it too late. In fact even the exhilarated fans and scribes are probably in agreement but are merely determined to remain optimistic, and are just happy that it came together at all. It is, after all, still a fight between the two best welterweights in the world, at the very least.
The argument from the dissenters is that the fight doesn’t mean as much now as it would have five years ago when both men were at their primes. It is an understandable stance to take. A meeting between the consensus pound for pound 1 and 2 would have been a truly rare scenario. At the beginning of 2010 Pacquiao was an offensive whirlwind that had wrecked everything in its path moving up from super featherweight to welterweight. He was on a four fight knockout streak including devastating wins over Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto. Mayweather was only one fight back from a lengthy layoff but that one fight saw him turning in an utterly dominant performance against Pacquiao’s long-time tormentor Juan Manuel Marquez.
Fast forward to 2015 and Manny has since suffered two defeats, albeit one via ludicrous decision. The other however is less easy to ignore and came due to a brutal one punch knockout from the aforementioned “Dinamita” Marquez. The one time home run hitter also hasn’t scored a stoppage since that late 2009 hammering of Cotto.
Mayweather, though still perfect according to his 47 fight ledger, has fans believing he is showing signs of decline. He allowed Miguel Cotto too close for comfort in the late stages of their 2012 bout and he struggled with the misanthropic Marcos Maidana in the first of their two meetings.
I won’t try to assert that the fight means as much as it once did. At this moment in time it doesn’t.
History however is written in the aftermath of events and the real meaning of this fight, the narrative, is yet to be written.
We saw it with Ali and Frazier in Manila that if the fight is special the fact that the combatants were not at their absolute peaks can be reduced to a mere footnote. In fact the events that morning in the Philippines have come to define the greatness of the two men involved more than their earlier performances. Though their physical gifts may have deteriorated they displayed attributes in that fight that would separate them from the vast majority of men who have ever thrown a punch. They showed stubbornness, heart, toughness and determination of unparalleled levels. These are things that are remembered fondly. These are the things that nostalgia is made of, and nostalgia is a powerful historian.
Often times the decline of fighters is what gives them the opportunity to show qualities that had previously been hidden. Floyd’s defensive genius, as well as his remarkable speed and reflexes have meant that he has rarely been in good fights, and one should not underestimate the impact this can have on a legacy. Furthermore he has rarely been in a position to show the grit of a true great. If Floyd has slowed down however and Pacquiao has enough left to really pressure him we might finally get to see what “Money May” the man is made of. If this happens it won’t be his less than prime defensive display that the fans or the history books will recollect.
In a way Floyd’s legacy has been a victim of his dominance. His coveted 0 has been his worst enemy. Drama and great feats of the human spirit live longer in the memory than displays of dominance. If a slower, less nimble Floyd occasionally lacking his trademark sharpness can dig deep in a tough, tight fight his legacy will be enhanced more than if he outboxes Manny in one-sided fashion.
As the legend goes it was in the 9th round of the “thrilla” that Ali mumbled to Frazier through his gum shield “They told me you were finished Joe”. Frazier responded “They were wrong”.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Floyd Mayweather has a habit of avoiding fighters until he sees a weakness in them or a noticeable decline. Some will see the delay and eventual coming together of this fight as evidence of this cynical viewpoint. Like Frazier in 1975 Pacquiao is not far removed from a soul crushing knockout loss. Floyd may be under the impression that, despite a couple of good performances since then, Manny isn’t the same as he once was. “They” are largely in agreement. “They” don’t think Manny can rebound the same way as he did when he suffered set -backs as a literally hungry up and comer. If Mayweather is of the opinion that Pacquiao is finished “they’’ will have played a part in his thinking. Manny, like Joe before him, will be out to show the public, the media and his opponent that he is not finished so he too can say “They were wrong’’.
We have had to wait a very long time for this fight. Thus far the saga of the negotiation has defined the story of Floyd Mayweather vs Manny Pacquiao, even in the wake of the bouts announcement. However if it turns out these men are at similar points on their career graph the fact that they have passed their peaks will be all but forgotten. The fact we have had to wait so long to see them face-off will be nothing more than a minor detail.